The Best Films at Cannes Film Festival 2019

With another Cannes in the rearview mirror, we look back at the films that delighted us from this year's edition, including Celine Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Xavier Dolan's Matthias & Maxime and worthy Palme d’Or winner Parasite

Article by Iana Murray | 28 May 2019
  • The Lighthouse

Another Cannes Film Festival has come to an end, and the slate of films for the remainder of the year is looking bright. As controversial as it is renowned, the festival signals the best of what’s to come, and this edition was home to an especially stacked lineup. After a slow start, attendees flooded to buzzworthy titles like the newest from Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick and Robert Eggers (more on the latter below).

After complaints that last year’s festival was lacking in major names, it seemed like anyone who was anyone could be found walking up the famous red steps. But for every Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood or Rocketman, there’s a trove of discoveries to be made from established and up-and-coming directors across the globe.

This writer screamed for joy when Alejandro González Iñárritu’s jury sided with the critics and awarded the Palme d’Or to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Iñárritu said the decision was unanimous and there is no doubt that Bong’s farcical tale of class warfare is not just the best film at the festival, but one of the best of the year. The film follows two economically disparate families as their lives become entangled, and the joy of watching the story unfold comes from the many surprises that Bong hides up his sleeve as it mutates from dark comedy to vicious thriller.

The festival was quick to pat itself on the back for a growing presence of female-directed films in the official selection, but progress is still slow and the goal for gender parity by 2020 is looking even more unlikely. Only four out of the 21 films in competition were directed by women, many of which were among the best in the strand. Little Joe from Austrian director Jessica Hausner brought some rare genre flair to the Croisette, and Emily Beecham won the best actress prize for her turn as a plant breeder who creates a mood-altering flower.

Among the other awarded films of the festival was Mati Diop’s feature debut Atlantics, which won the Grand Prix. What starts as an intimate love story transforms into something much stranger – to ruin the surprise would take away the pleasure of Diop’s beguiling and unnerving film. The Claire Denis disciple made history as the first black female filmmaker in the competition, but for this to happen in 2019 only highlights how antiquated the festival is.

Céline Sciamma also deservedly picked up the screenplay prize and the Queer Palme for her sublime romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film sees the French director reunite with the lead of her debut Water Lilies, Adèle Haenel, starring here as a noblewoman who falls in love with the female painter commissioned to paint her portrait. It’s a cliche phrase but every frame looks like it could be one of the paintings created by the artist – the titular moment is especially remarkable.

Elsewhere in the competition, Québécois director Xavier Dolan returned to the Croisette with Matthias & Maxime, a tender drama about a pair of best friends who begin to reevaluate their identities when they share a kiss for a short film. The film went away empty-handed, but it's Dolan’s best in years.

Outside of the competition, Nicolas Winding Refn followed in the footsteps of Jane Campion and David Lynch by unveiling two episodes of his upcoming Amazon Prime series Too Old to Die Young. Curiously, the two episodes were the fourth and fifth, and the resulting experience is as hypnotic as it is confounding, forcing the audience to follow Miles Teller’s cop gone rogue as he navigates the seedy underworld of Los Angeles without context. Anyone familiar with Drive or The Neon Demon will be unsurprised by the neon-soaked criminality of Too Old..., but it’s alluring and gripping enough to be worth a binge-watch when it hits streaming next month.

The Directors’ Fortnight strand featured some of the most exciting films that put most of the official competition to shame. The hottest ticket in town may have been The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his acclaimed horror The Witch, which stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as a pair of duelling 'wickies' on a four-week stint at an isolated lighthouse. The film attracted snaking queues, and such an overwhelming amount of buzz is usually a set-up for disappointment, but the reality is a fascinating concoction. Eggers weaves meticulous research with myths and fantasies, while the actors unleash career-best performances as they progressively descend into madness. In truth, The Lighthouse belonged in the competition, but we suspect the seaside psychodrama veered too far into genre territory for the festival’s prestige tastes.

Similarly deranged mania could be found in First Love, the 103rd film from Takashi Miike. It’s the prolific director’s interpretation of a romantic comedy: a violent, gonzo Yakuza noir about a night-long hunt for a drug stash. Bertrand Bonello also garnered acclaim for Zombi Child, which marries the remnants of colonialism with teenage angst to tell a singular and haunting ghost story.

Amid the many hyped titles in Directors’ Fortnight, one film that slipped under the radar was Levan Akin's Georgia-set romance And Then We Danced, which follows two male dancers who tentatively form a relationship despite living in a country entrenched in homophobia. What sets the film apart is how much is left unsaid – unable to express themselves in fear of punishment, flirtation becomes an entirely physical act as they dance around their feelings.

There is never really a “bad” year at the Cannes Film Festival, but if the previous edition was considered to be a disappointment, this year was an exhilarating joyride. A fine balance of renowned auteurs and exciting new voices meant that every day unveiled a flurry of surprises. Cannes isn’t perfect. It’s exhausting and frustrating, and with the scales tipped in men’s favour, it’s a festival still set in its outdated ways. But the ephemeral thrill of being among the first to witness something special reminds us why there is nothing quite like Cannes.

For more Cannes Film Festival coverage, click here

Follow Iana Murray on Twitter at @ianamurray